The Memoirs of Jeanne de La Motte

There’s nothing like reading the first-hand accounts of the main players in a thrilling historical drama. Or a dramatic historical thriller–you could use either to describe the Affair of the Diamond Necklace. Jeanne wrote several memoirs. They came out in French and English and sometimes in more than one volume, making for a confusing array of texts.

Here are the original versions of two memoirs by Jeanne de La Motte:

Mémoires justificatifs de la Comtesse de Valois de La Motte–In French, dense, and probably not accessible for people who don’t know French very well.

The life of Jane de St. Remy de Valois, heretofore Countess de La Motte–An English translation published while Jeanne was in London. Much more accessible to English-speakers if you don’t mind extraneous commas.

My take on the Memoirs:

Jeanne de La Motte’s story is fascinating from beginning to end, and no one would agree more than Jeanne herself. From a very young age, Jeanne learned to tell her own story to the best of her abilities, with the aim of capturing the attention and sympathy of those around her. She told her story while begging on the streets and she told her story while trying to get noticed at the court of Versailles. When the Affair of the Diamond Necklace broke, her audience became much wider and the list of antagonists in her story increased by (at least) one: now Queen Marie-Antoinette was on the list of people out to victimize her.

You can’t take Jeanne at her word. The outline of her life is almost certainly true, as well as those details that she had no reason to lie about (for instance, the date of her arrival in Paris) or that were easily verifiable fact (for instance, the date of her birth or marriage). But, otherwise, in her memoirs Jeanne makes herself into the tragic heroine, constantly wronged by fate and, more to the point, by those around her. The first villain of Jeanne’s story is her own mother. Jeanne’s mother is presented as a gold-digger who ruined her husband (Jeanne’s good-hearted father) and never loved him in return. Jeanne’s mother constantly beat her, forced them all to go to Paris where the children had to beg on the streets, barely mourned her husband’s death, and asked her children to claim that her new lover was their father. How much of this is true, it’s hard to tell. No doubt, Jeanne’s mother would tell a very different version of the story.

After her mother abandons Jeanne, other villains continue to plague her life: the nemesis is her foster father, or the officials at court, or Madame Elisabeth, or Marie-Antoinette herself, or the police, or the monarchy at large. Throughout her memoirs, Jeanne casts herself as the victim of wicked people. And yet, all the evidence points to her as the culprit in the Affair of the Diamond Necklace, no matter how poorly she was treated by how many people. It’s incredibly telling that the thief is the victim here, over and over again.

Even if Jeanne only partially believed her own tales, this was the way she chose to defend her actions: she placed herself as the victim. In her own mind, she was merely responding to a cruel world as best she could–and maybe her response wasn’t perfect, but it was no worse than could be expected in the circumstances. Underlying this is Jeanne’s assumption that she deserved much, much better. Jeanne denies ever having stolen the Diamond Necklace, but if you take it for granted that she did steal it, then you can see her memoirs as a lengthy justification for why she deserved that necklace that didn’t belong to her. Her entire unfair life led up to a point where she saw for herself the chance to get some justice. Everyone from her mother to the queen had denied her what was her right. The necklace became a chance to reclaim what she felt she deserved. When that fell through, the memoirs became her form of revenge–because her story was much more damaging to the Queen than the loss of the necklace.

The morality is suspect; just because a person was constantly abused (and there’s little doubt Jeanne was abused) doesn’t justify theft, cheating, and adultery (all of which Jeanne was almost certainly guilty of). When you take into account her motives and point of view, Jeanne’s memoirs make a fascinating study of morals and how flexible they can be.

If you are patient with language, whether its French or mind-numbingly archaic English, then I suggest you take a look at these memoirs and judge for yourself.

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2 thoughts on “The Memoirs of Jeanne de La Motte

  1. Hello see your interersing article and i wanted to ask you about the memoirs of Jeanne St. Remy de Valois
    you said The life of Jane de St. Remy de Valois is her memoirs but i find one more the name
    Memoirs of the Countess de Valois de La Motte
    so the both memoirs she wrote?
    thank you

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